The Fear of Opening One’s Mouth and the Difference of a Year

A deviation sign, but in Dutch this time in Bruges

Once upon a time, I felt it necessary to be “correct” all the time. Necessary – and vitally important. To know how to smoothly maneuver any situation, to say some polysyllabic constellation of words to dazzle and open doors. It was my own small way of manipulating the world, a strange skill I learned to rely on early.

I have never considered myself charming, to be clear, but I felt that, through my hyperarticulateness and apologetic tone, I could deal with whatever I had to. I would show people how good I was, and through impressing them or saying the right thing, they would help me solve my problems.

It’s a difficult thing to keep up. Even if you are naturally polysyllabic and hyperarticulate, it takes a lot of energy. It’s not a sustainable tactic.

Mouth and teeth street art in Brussels

I began to walk away from being this way a couple years ago. It changed everything – it lightened my heavy introversion, because being around other people wasn’t such an energy suck. It paved the way to easier and more genuine interactions with everyone from my nearest and dearest to the cashier at QFC. I embraced it, and I opened myself to being awkward (once a life-bending fear) and incomplete. I opened myself to actually being real with people. I congratulated myself on being past this old hindrance. Haven’t I done so well.

In Paris last year, I realized how far that was from the truth. I may not try to dazzle people with my glittering utterances anymore (or not all the time, anyway), but I am made of words, and to have to get by without them left me unprepared for anything – and panicked at times. My first two or three days were spent with at least a mildly elevated heartbeat. What if something happened? What if someone misunderstood me?

Beginner’s mind: it does not come easily to me.

It was easier this year. Because we went to a trilingual country where it’s in everyone’s financial interest to speak at least business English. Because my French is somewhat better than nonexistent now. But mostly, really, because I calmed down. Once upon a time, that the housekeeper who checked us into our Brussels studio didn’t know English would have left me stricken. What if we missed some vital detail? What if we have a question or an emergency later?

What if she doesn’t know how smart I am?


Octopus street art in Brussels

Instead, I was able to admire how she was able to pantomime everything from how to work the complicated locks to where the coffee is (and how good it is) to how to work the TV. Her job is to deal with Frenchless foreigners; she performs it beautifully and with good humor. And instead of feeling mortified at being inadequate, I was able to enjoy the particular skill she’s had to cultivate and to marvel at how much I was able to learn without words – and how happy I was to pick out the French I understood.

It was a great welcome to Brussels.

I think what makes a person able to travel and really enjoy it is the skill to laugh at these shortfalls. To enjoy the gaps that exist between people and cultures, but also to celebrate when they’re bridged (perhaps using a mix of French, English, and Spanish, which happened to us at the kaiten-style Spanish tapas restaurant in central Brussels – a good meal, enjoyably delivered by lovely people).

At the end of a trip, yes, I confess I’m glad to return to where I know when the bars close and what’s sold at a pharmacy vs. the grocery store and how to pay the check in a restaurant. But it’s a flush of gratitude, a fluency returned, and there’s pleasure in that too. I know this. I can do this right.

I hope that, one day, beginner’s mind comes naturally to me. I admire it so in other people.

In the meantime, if I can look past my panic in a moment, I can see a crossroads. And I choose, over and over, the path of laughing and laughing, and trusting that most of us just want everything to turn out ok.

People Who Are Not Having a Good Time at Bruges’ Memling Museum

It’s easy to go to Europe and get total Beautiful Antiquities fatigue. Between the towns and cities full of centuries-old churches, museums stocked with the riches that come with living in an old country, and the availability of these things to willing American tourists, you can become a particular kind of jaded. Truth: I realized on this trip that I actually am not all that interested in visiting old churches. They are beautiful, yes. And if there’s a certain local mythology going on, as there was in both Bruges and Brussels (more on that later), you learn about another aspect of the place you’re staying more viscerally than you could otherwise. But when I see ornate churches, lavished with riches and made with decades and centuries of labor from the faithful, I only see ruined lives and bent souls, both in the past and now. All the carved wood, stunning sculpture, and ancient gilding in the world can’t get me past that.

But the Memling Museum… that is a different matter.

The Memling Museum collects art, history, and medical paraphernalia from across the 800-year history of this hospital/nunnery/cradle of fine Flemish art.

I promise this makes sense.

Hans Memling was an adopted citizen of Bruges, and he created stunning commissions for, among others, the curiously flourishing nuns and priests of Sint-Janshospitaal.* So the museum collects some of Memling’s works, some of the tools used for palliative care of pilgrims who appeared in Bruges feeling poorly, and other artifacts from the hospital’s long history.

I was enthralled.

You should go, if you get the chance. But in case you don’t, here’s a thematic tour. I give you: a selection of people who are having a bad time in art in the Memling Museum.

Portrait of Francois de Wulf, anonymous, 18th century

Detail from Portrait of Francois de Wulf, anonymous, 18th century. The rest of this painting depicts a man who would like you to know he is quite skilled and prestigious, looking at us to reassure us of this and paying not nearly enough attention to prodding this child in the eyeball. Sorry, child. It wasn’t easy being a pilgrim in the 1700s. We get pairs of things for a reason, I guess.

Opthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst, Georg Bartisch, 1535-1607

Opthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst, Georg Bartisch, 1535-1607. This is a page from a book meant to instruct you of something. Mainly, it instructed me that I should take a moment to be glad that I was born when I was. But I’m always glad of that.

The Anatomy Lesson, Anonymous, Bruges, 1679

Detail from The Anatomy Lesson, Anonymous, Bruges, 1679. Surrounding this man: a bunch of other men who look disinterested as only Flemish paintings of aristocrats can make a person look.

the biggest kidney stone you've ever seen (or not)

Intermission: GIANT FREAKING KIDNEY STONES, OH MY GOD. Not included: an explanation of the long, wonderful lives the people who produced these went onto live.

Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ ChildHans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child. This is one of the centerpieces of the museum, and for good reason. I draw. I make art. But I’ve never worked in oils, and the colors they can produce still stun me. I stood in front of this for a good minute, drinking it in.

But I have an inescapable truth for you.


And that is why Our Lady here is included in this roundup.

Magi, The Circumcision, and the rest on the flight into Egypt, Anonymous, Flanders, 16th centuryDetail from Magi, the Circumcision, and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Anonymous, Flanders, 16th century. I like this painting because our focus here has the distinct look of someone going, “Uh, hey, can we have a word? There’s more going on here than I signed up for.”

The Good Samaritan, anonymous, Southern Netherlands, 16th centuryDetail from The Good Samaritan, Anonymous, Southern Netherlands, 16th century. At least we know this fellow has better things waiting for him on the other side. Of the story, not the great rift between the living and the dead. That too, I suppose, considering the theme of the museum.

St. John Altarpiece, Memling, around 1479

And, finally, St. John Altarpiece, Memling, around 1479.

Ah, you hate to see that.

We didn’t make it to the Groeninge Museum (though I very much enjoyed reciting Rick Steves’ transcribed versions of how to properly pronounce said museum’s name), but we made the right choice. The Memling Museum, with its wonderful collision of ghastly history, transcendent beauty, and peculiar local history, was one of the highlights of the whole London-Brussels-Bruges trip for me. I was a bit surly on my day in Bruges, but the Memling Museum made all the tourist-dodging and other bits of sourness utterly worth it.

Though having cause to dash across a museum, whisper neckboob to someone you love, and dash back away… well, that is a balm for the spirits too.

*That is: in which I learn that not all people who dedicated their lives to Christianity took a vow of poverty! Because wow, those were some hefty commissions. My favorites: triptychs where the central panel depicts a pivotal moment of Christian mythology… and the two outer wings contain portraits of the priests, nuns, and monks who commissioned the works, staidly looking on as St. John is beheaded or someone important gets circumcised or something of that nature. And, in case you didn’t catch the likeness, many had their names painted above their depictions. I learned many things that day.